The Buzz

Pearl Harbor Revenge: The Battleship Battle of Surigao Strait

Around 5 am, Newcomb sent her medical officer and two corpsmen over to Grant by whaleboat—94 of the destroyer’s crew were wounded and 34 officers and men had been killed. Grant’s captain, a large, muscular man, went below and pulled several sailors out of the flooding engine room himself. An hour or so later, Newcomb took Grant in tow and pulled her out of the battle area. The destroyer was repaired and later took part in the Okinawa campaign.

“Modern War at Sea”

While the destroyers were making their torpedo attacks, Admiral Oldendorf’s battle line and flanking cruisers waited for Nishimura’s group to come within range of their guns. Explosions from the torpedo hits, along with the eruption of Fuso, were visible to anyone topside on any of the cruisers or battleships. Radar screens began to pick up the enemy at 3:23. The battleships and cruisers had been steering back and forth, east and west, across the northern end of Surigao Strait. At 3:30, they were all near the western side of the strait, steering east. Twenty-one minutes later Oldendorf ordered the cruisers to open fire; two minutes later the battleships joined in.

The situation was a Naval War College textbook exercise, at least from the American point of view. Admiral Nishimura’s force, now down to three ships—one battleship, one heavy cruiser, and one destroyer—continued steaming northward. Oldendorf was about to cross the T in a classic naval maneuver, which allowed the ships forming the horizontal stroke to bring all guns to bear, while the ships forming the downstroke could only fire their forward-facing guns at the enemy.

Of the American battleships, Tennessee, West Virginia, and California had the advantage of Mk 8 fire control radar. The radar data—the distance, speed, and course of the enemy—were fed into the gunnery computer and produced a firing solution before the enemy ships even came within range. Ammunition was in relatively short supply since the ships had been bombarding enemy shore installations and were carrying relatively few armor-piercing shells.

Yamashiro continued on a course of 20 degrees at 12 knots, firing at Denver, Columbia, and other left-flank cruisers. The battleship did not have any fire control radar and was limited to shooting at visible targets. The cruisers were closer and easier to see than Oldendorf’s battleships. Denver, Columbia, and Minneapolis were straddled by shell splashes.

The cruisers and battleships returned a devastating fire of their own. Every caliber shell from 6-inch to 16-inch came cascading down in the immediate vicinity of Yamashiro and Mogami. “This was modern war at sea,” wrote one commentator. “They fired at something they couldn’t see and it fired back.” Actually, Yamashiro and Mogami were firing at the cruisers and withdrawing destroyers and only managed to hit the unfortunate Albert W. Grant.

“The Most Beautiful Sight”

Aboard the battleships of both navies, the concussion from the big guns was staggering. Every time a salvo was fired, the recoil rocked the ship and seemed to push it sideways. The blast from the guns squeezed the breath out of the body and popped rivets out of the bulkheads. Shells weighing nearly a ton each rocketed out of muzzles at over 1,600 miles per hour. Thick clouds of cordite smoke burned the eyes and stuck in the throat. Flashless powder was being used, but the muzzle flashes still lit up each ship on this black night. An easterly breeze blew the smoke clear, a great help for visual spotting and observation.

West Virginia fired a total of 93 rounds of 16-inch armor-piercing shells, while Tennessee and California fired 69 and 63 rounds, respectively, of 14-inch ammunition. The other three battleships were hindered by their Mk 3 radar, which was far less effective in finding targets than the Mk 8 and resulted in dramatically fewer rounds fired. Maryland fired 48 rounds, its fire control managing to find Yamashiro by ranging on the splashes from West Virginia’s shells. Mississippi fired only one salvo, and Pennsylvania did not fire a shot all night long.

On the American left flank, Denver began firing at Yamashiro at 3:51. Minneapolis, Columbia, and Portland quickly joined in. Columbia alone fired 1,147 rounds in 18 minutes, equalling a 12-gun salvo every 12 seconds. Portland shifted fire to Mogami at 3:58, while Denver tried to stop Shigure but probably hit Albert W. Grant instead.

The right-flank cruisers concentrated fire on Yamashiro. Phoenix fired full 18-gun salvos on an average of every 15 seconds. Boise had also gone to rapid fire but was ordered to “fire slow and deliberate” to conserve ammunition. The Australian cruiser Shropshire started firing slowly but went to rapid fire after changing course to begin a westerly run across the strait. These cruisers fired a total of 1,181 rounds. Spotters observed large, bright flashes on Yamashiro and believed that their own gunfire was responsible.